12 March 1991 - Current
VICTORIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT COUNCIL BILL
2 November 2000
VICTORIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT COUNCIL BILL Second reading Ms GARBUTT (Minister for Environment and Conservation) -- I move: That this bill be now read a second time. This bill to establish the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, which I will refer to as VEAC, fulfils a major policy commitment by this government. VEAC replaces the Environment Conservation Council and provides a new focus and strengthened capability to investigate and make recommendations on the major environmental management issues which we face as a community. The Environment Conservation Council was established by the former government to complete two important investigations undertaken by the Land Conservation Council. The Environment Conservation Council has completed the first of those investigations into Victoria's marine, coastal and estuarine areas and its report is now being considered by government. Its second investigation into box-ironbark forest and woodlands is scheduled to be completed by 31 December 2000. The government thanks the members of the Environment Conservation Council and its staff for the important work they have undertaken and acknowledges the major contribution of the Land Conservation Council over the preceding decades. These investigations and reports both by the Land Conservation Council and the Environment Conservation Council are highly important for the protection and enjoyment of the state's natural heritage by all Victorians. The government strongly believes that the quality of life of all Victorians depends on properly managing our environment and protecting our precious natural and cultural heritage. Decisions made by government should ensure that Victoria is not running down its natural assets and thereby building an environmental debt. The government has committed to building in the principles of ecologically sustainable development to all government decision making. The government is committed to the protection of our biodiversity on the principle that Victoria's rich diversity of species, habitats and ecosystems is a legacy held in trust for future generations. Given the plight of grassy ecosystems across Victoria, the further protection of these ecosystems is a key priority that the government will have VEAC investigate. VEAC will also be requested to undertake investigations into the protection of other ecosystems, including the native forests in the Strzelecki Ranges. VEAC, which will replace the Environment Conservation Council, will be considerably strengthened in a number of ways. Its focus will be on the ecologically sustainable management of the environment and natural resources of the state of Victoria. It will be able to examine such issues across the state of Victoria. Its investigations will not be confined to Crown land. It will have an expanded core membership and the minister will be able to appoint additional members with skills and experience essential to particular investigations. It will operate in a highly transparent way with additional consultation requirements, including the
establishment of a community reference group for each investigation. I will now turn to the particulars of the bill. Given that VEAC will be able to investigate issues across Victoria, there has not been a need to define public land, as was the case for the Environment Conservation Council and its predecessor the Land Conservation Council, which were restricted to undertaking investigations on public land. Clause 5 highlights the key objective of VEAC, which will be to provide independent and strategic advice to the government of Victoria on matters relating to the protection and ecologically sustainable management of the environment and natural resources of Victoria. The functions of VEAC as stated in clause 6 make it clear that VEAC only has a role in undertaking investigations that are requested by the minister. VEAC has general powers to do anything reasonably necessary or convenient to carry out its functions as set out in clause 7. While VEAC will be able to carry out investigations across a range of land tenures, it will not have the specific powers to compel private individuals or companies to provide information or access to property. The membership of VEAC is set out in clause 8. It will consist of a core of five members, which are collectively to have skills, knowledge and experience in environment protection and conservation, natural resource management, local government, economics and business management, rural and regional affairs, issues relating to indigenous peoples, social and community affairs, and community consultation and participation. Advice received from a broad range of environment, industry, local government and union stakeholders indicated that the best outcomes would be achieved if VEAC were skills based. The government has accepted this advice. It is therefore important that VEAC has a broad range of skills in environment management and also strong social and economic business skills. This approach delivers a triple-bottom-line-focused council, which has the ability to equally address environmental, social and economic aspects of its investigations. For particular investigations, an additional member or members may be appointed to VEAC under subclause (4). This ensures that where there is an identified need for VEAC to have additional skills for a particular investigation, these can be provided. To ensure transparency of the process for selecting members for appointment to VEAC the intention is to advertise widely for nominations to the positions, including those of the additional members. The Governor in Council, on the recommendation of the minister, will appoint members and additional members to VEAC. VEAC will be able to establish committees that it considers necessary for any investigation, as set out in clause 12. For example, VEAC may establish scientific or technical committees from which to seek specialised advice. Importantly the government has recognised the need for greater participation in VEAC's investigations, with more direct input to council deliberations being desirable. Clause 13 requires VEAC to establish a community reference group for each investigation. The community reference group will provide a formal mechanism through which key stakeholder groups may provide advice to VEAC with respect to specific recommendations. This will be in addition to the comprehensive public consultation processes that VEAC will be required to undertake for each investigation. While the process for appointment of members to the community reference group will be up to VEAC to determine, I would expect that VEAC would advertise for nominations to the community reference group to ensure members are selected in an open and transparent manner. Part 3 of the act deals with the conduct of investigations. Clauses 15 and 16 set out the process by which the minister may request VEAC to carry out an investigation and by which the minister may amend or withdraw a request. It is a requirement that the minister inform Parliament of the request or subsequent amendment or withdrawal by laying it in both houses of Parliament, thereby informing members of investigations that may be undertaken in their area. The request, amendment or withdrawal must also be published in the Government Gazette and on the Internet. This will help to ensure that the public is informed about investigations that may be of interest. Not all investigations, particularly shorter investigations, will necessarily require three submission periods of 60 days. The minister will therefore have the ability to direct VEAC to vary the number of submission periods and also the length of time required for submissions for any investigation.
Recognising that the funding available to the Environment Conservation Council was reduced by the previous government compared to the resources made available to the previous Land Conservation Council, this government made an election commitment to make additional resources available to VEAC over the next four years. This commitment has been reflected in the 2000-01 budget statement. VEAC will be accountable to the minister as to how those resources are to be spent in relation to each investigation. VEAC will be required to submit a business plan to the minister detailing the proposed approach for the investigation and the resources to be committed. The principles of ecologically sustainable development are enshrined in the purpose, objective and functions of VEAC. These principles were adopted by all Australian governments in 1992 through the national strategy for ecologically sustainable development. This further demonstrates the government's commitment to build the principles of ecologically sustainable development into all government decision making and ensure that a balanced view is taken. It is important that consideration is given to the need to protect environmental, cultural and recreation values and the need to further the establishment of a truly comprehensive, adequate and representative system of parks and reserves across Victoria. VEAC must also take into consideration the implications of any international treaty that Australia has ratified that is relevant to the investigation to ensure any advice given is not contrary to Australia's obligations under that treaty. Clause 19 requires VEAC to liaise with departments and other public authorities where they may be affected by an investigation and that those authorities must give practicable assistance to VEAC in its investigations. Clauses 20 to 23 set out the formal process by which the public will have input to any investigation and VEAC is to report on the results of the investigation. The government considers that full and open public consultation is a key factor in decision making, a process which the former Land Conservation Council undertook very well and which had considerable public and government support. VEAC will however be required to undertake a multistage consultation process providing three formal periods for public comment, each of at least 60 days. VEAC is required to provide public notice of an investigation, including the requirement to publish in newspapers and on the Internet. Again, this demonstrates the government's commitment to making information transparent and accessible to the public. The final report of VEAC is to detail the main proposals identified in public submissions on that investigation and provide a rationale for council's consideration of those proposals. In keeping with the general requirements throughout the legislation, the report will be tabled in Parliament and be made available on the Internet. Clauses 24 and 25 commit government to publicly respond to VEAC's recommendations in Parliament and to then ensure that appropriate actions are taken to implement recommendations to the extent that they have been accepted. Part 4 of the bill covers the transition to the new legislation. The effect of any recommendations made by the Land Conservation Council and the Environment Conservation Council will be preserved. Also, given that the Environment Conservation Council Act 1997 does not require the government to formally respond to the recommendations of that council, the new legislation will require that the recommendations be treated as if they were recommendations made by VEAC. In conclusion, this bill is evidence of the government 's commitment to an integrated approach to the consideration of environment and natural resource management issues and the enduring importance of ecologically sustainable development. This is the triple bottom line. I commend the bill to the house. Debate adjourned on motion of Mr PERTON (Doncaster). Debate adjourned until Thursday, 16 November.